Frederick Douglass Reenactor Says He Was Born to Play the Part

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The hat catches the eye. It lends an air of mystery to Frederick I. Douglas. Who wears a Panama hat these days?

When he strides through a District restaurant, he seems from another era, wearing the same kind of hat once worn by the 19th-century Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave turned abolitionist, publisher and statesman. Douglas is a Douglass reenactor, you see. In a life of performance art, he poses as the great man. Douglas, 60, makes appearances around the country in top hat and tails, orating in the high English and deep baritone for which Douglass was known. His wife, B.J., a singer, often performs with him, portraying the abolitionist's first wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

He has been captivating audiences for nearly two decades, with his Douglass-like visage, if not always with his actual oratory. His renown has taken him from elementary schools to the White House. At events in 2002 and 2005, President Bush introduced him as Frederick Douglass's descendant. After seeing a Douglas reenactment, Lynne Cheney in 2003 appointed him to her James Madison Book Award Advisory Council.

Douglas isn't just acting. For him, history is alive, and it courses through his veins. Douglas, of Baltimore, says he is a great-great-grandson of the great abolitionist, although some historians and documented Douglass descendants dispute his claim. Calling himself Frederick Douglass IV, he lays claim to a vast historic legacy.

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